Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Bengali cinema produced socially aware films, which seldom attacked the British imperialism and oppression. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag explores the trends and patterns of Bengali cinema during the struggle for independence.
In 1795 a Russian, Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev started proscenium drama in Calcutta, the then capital of British rule in India. These productions, translations of European plays in Bengali with native actors is arguably considered as the pioneer of modern Indian theatre different from our traditional one derived from Bharat Muni’s Natya Sashtra. During the middle of the 19th century Bengali bard Madhusudhan Dutt was involved with the theatre at Belgachhia which was a pioneer of modern, Western-influenced theatre. Dutt composed the play Sharmistha in the western style in 1858 based on the story of Debjani-Yayati of Mahabharata. It is considered as the first original play written in Bengali language. The following year, Dutt penned two farces: Ekei ki bole sabhyata? and Buro salikher ghare ro. While in the first, he satirizes the addiction, disorderly conduct, and immorality of the English-educated young Bengalis, in the second, he exposes the secret debauchery of the conservative and corrupt socialists of the conservative Hindu society.
While these socially aware plays were performed and appreciated, the first ‘Swadeshi’ play was Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nil Darpan that depicted the horrific tragedy of indigo farmers in rural Bengal and the British atrocities against them. The play written in 1859 portraying the contemporary indigo revolt was staged a few years later in 1872 by Girish Chandra Ghosh. Ghosh established the National Theatre in the same year and the first performance of Bengali commercial stage happened with Mitra’s controversial, yet poignant play.
Not far away, at the Tagores’, Rabindranath was exploring the ideas of spiritualism and individual identity, in parallel raising questions on the collective vision of nationalism through Chitrangada (1892), Raja (1910), Dakghar (1913) and Raktakarabi (1924). Expectedly Nil Darpan’s popularity didn’t gel well with the British authorities who banned the performance of the play. In accordance, an ordinance was promulgated in 1876 empowering the British-run Bengal Government to ban performances of any play they found scandalous, defamatory, seditious, obscene, or otherwise prejudicial to the public interest. In no time the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876 was imposed to check the revolutionary impulses of Bengali theatre. The Act ensured that the flurry of nationalist plays after Nil Darpan which all rocketed to popularity started to become rare. The police atrocities were rampant and the punishments severe. Playwrights who wished to attack the colonial rule soon turned to mythological plays to shield their nationalist messages to evade censor’s actions. Interestingly, while the British came down heavily on the open ‘swadeshi’ theatre, they were somewhat indifferent to the mythological ones.
With the heightening of the ‘Swadeshi’ movement at the turn of the 19th century Bengali theatre tended to venerate the past more than any time before. It was Lord Curzon’s implementation of the partition of Bengal in 1905 which served fodder to strong nationalist sentiments amongst Bengalis. However, though Curzon’s ‘divide and rule’ policy actually angered the Bengalis prior to 1905. In 1903 Kshirod Prasad Vidyavinod’s Pratapaditya reflected the latent wish of the race through Pratapaditya, a powerful zamindar of Bengal who raised his sword against the might of the Mughals to save Jessore (now in Bangladesh). Plays upholding the religious unity alongside the strong wish of freedom from foreign forces seemed fervent. In the month of January 1906 itself, at the two leading theatres of Calcutta — Star and Minerva, the following plays were staged and performed — Kshirod Prasad Vidyavinod’s Padmini, Dwijendra Lal Roy’s Rana Pratap Singha, Amritalal Basu’s Shabash Bangali, Girish Ghosh’s Siraj-ud-daula, and Haranath Bose’s Jagaran. The influence of Rajput heroes not only enriched the Bengali plays but also other literary forms notably by Dwijendra Lal Roy (whose song ‘Dhana Dhanye Pushpe Bhora’/ ‘A land rich in grain and flowers’ from his play Shah Jahan remains to be one of the most popular patriotic songs till today), Rabindranath Tagore and his nephew Abanindranath. Incidentally a year back, when Rana Pratap Singha was regularly been staged at the Star Theatre, mourning was observed on 6 September with no show or entertainment on that day.
In ‘Jatra’, the indigenous folk version of proscenium theatre with no walls, as well, the winds of patriotic vigour started flowing freely during that time. The most famous exponent of ‘Jatra’ was Charan Kabi Mukundadas (original name Yajneshwar De). ‘Jatra’ had always drawn heavily from mythology. With Mukundadas there was a spread of political awareness that somehow complemented the problems in holding ‘Swadeshi’ meetings. The popularity of ‘Jatra’ amongst the masses ensured that Mukundadas’s productions became big hits with the audience. Drawn between black and white representing the evil against the good, these plays inescapably portrayed the British as the new form of evil as against the Indian revolutionary symbolising the good.
Born and brought up in what is now Bangladesh, Mukundadas’s sweep was across the whole of undivided Bengal. His activities were soon termed as seditious and he was imprisoned particularly for a song – ‘Chilo dhan gola bhara, Shwet indure korlo sara’ / ‘The granary was full of paddy, The while mice ate it all’. The ‘white mice’ refers to the British obviously. Incidentally long after the Swadeshi movement, Mukundadas’s songs were popular even later during the Non-cooperation movements of the ‘20s.
After implementing the Dramatic Performances Act in 1876 the British were quick to understand that cinema had a bigger potential to influence public opinion. Expectedly India’s Cinematograph Act was passed in 1918 during the dying months of the World War I with effect from 1 August 1920. Based on the British Cinematograph Act 1909, the Indian version’s objective was nothing less than censoring the content of films to be exhibited for public consumption. On top of this cinema, from its birth, has remained an expensive affair. It is in this context of fervent patriotic expression in the different art forms from the early days of the twentieth century that we need to review the role of Bengali cinema in reflecting the country’s freedom struggle. While rest of India relied heavily on mythological and historical films even after talkies became the norm with Alam Ara in 1931, Bengali cinema already had socially relevant films starting with the silent Bilet Ferat in 1921. However, unlike the other art forms which were familiar, cinema was new and dynamic. The migration from silent films to talkies for example was fraught with uncertainty and scepticism. An art form that is even now heavily dependent on the West, not only for the ever-changing techniques but also for the raw materials no wonder intimidated the Indian filmmakers, including the Bengali ones of the time. The importance of cinema as a tool of propaganda was not envisioned by the British alone. In a Congress conference from 30 October till 1 November 1939 at Calcutta Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose advised the members from Faridpur district (now in Bangladesh) to form a film collective for spread of cinema. Incidentally the art magazine Rupamancha dedicated to film and theatre was one that started the same year with Netaji’s blessings. It was one of the earliest Bengali magazines that dealt with cinema.
With the advent of talkies Bengali cinema drew its inspiration from the rich literary tradition viz. novels of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and occasionally Rabindranath Tagore. The importance of content was observed since then, one of the reasons why in popular jargon, Bengalis even now refer a film as a ‘boi’ / ‘book’. With the rise of Pramathesh Barua since the mid-‘30s the ascent of the star was introduced. Barua’s maudlin melodrama swept the elite Bengali audience although his films were also anchored in strong literary conventions. Since the turn of the new century Bengal’s tragedy was manifold. The attempted partition of 1905 was followed by the shift of capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The manmade famine of 1942-43 was the next in line, and the severest till that time which shattered the Bengali confidence and emotional sanctity. Quite a few Bengali artists and filmmakers including Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and others started drifting away to a more stable and significantly more viable Bombay.
World War II that ended in 1945 gifted dark despair to the whole of India including Bengal. Raw stock materials became expensive, black marketeers gained prominence. Studios including the most prestigious New Theatres suffered losses and lost their enterprise. As per the data from Panna Shah’s 1950 book The Indian Film, between 1942 and 1945 the number of films in Bengali language reduced from 15 to 9, almost becoming half. It is to be kept in mind that the film industry in Calcutta not only produced Bengali films but films in other languages as well. While films in Urdu and Tamil started drying up with the years, Hindi films were still been made. The War, the famine, the exodus from Calcutta to Bombay all resulted in the industry being weaker by the day. The Bombay film industry had already established its monopoly of the pan India market. In 1946, with a sudden buoyancy of raw money in the market the Indian film industry experienced an unprecedented boom as Bombay produced 150 films (143 Hindi, 1 Gujarati, 2 Marathi, 2 Tamil and 2 Telugu) vis-à-vis Calcutta’s meagre 23 (15 Bengali and 8 Hindi). The disparity widened in the next two years and apart from exceptions including Debaki Bose’s double versioned Chandrasekhar (1947), the Bengali film industry slowly moved to a strangulating cash crunch. It can be safely left for conjecture what could have been the future of the film industry had it not been that the freedom of India also meant the momentous partition of Bengal. The partition apart from its psychological effect impacted the very base of Bengali cinema’s home market.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Bengali cinema produced socially aware films, which as explained above, seldom attacked the British imperialism and oppression. In his seminal book Bengali Cinema (1991) Kiranmoy Raha explained the reason of absence – “In the Thirties, the terrorists who gave their lives for their patriotic beliefs were loved and admired for their courage and sacrifice and became household names in Bengal. In 1942 was launched the ‘Quit India’ Movement. The nationalistic movement also acquired new social concepts which defined and gave utterance to the expectations of workers and peasants. But Bengali cinema of the period did not seem to notice any of these things. For a socially conscious and politicised people, like Bengalis who had been in the vanguard of social, artistic, and political movements in India, this is surprising. Apprehension about films being banned under the censorship rules, was doubtless a serious and weighty reason. But there is no reliable record of serious attempts having been made to make films which could circumvent the rules and yet get the message across.” In Cinema and the Indian Freedom Struggle (1998) Gautam Kaul went a step further and analysed – “The very limited response of Bengali cinema to the freedom theme must have other factors too…I attribute it to the disposition of those financiers of Bengali films who preferred gambling their wealth more freely in races at Calcutta’s Royal Turf Club than in films on the freedom themes. Their business was sustained by contracts and dealings with British administration and could not afford to bite the hand that fed them their daily bread.
Again, perhaps Bengali nationalism preferred to focus on the modernisation of society and religious reforms as a prelude to political self-assertion, a tradition which also found itself in other vernacular cinemas prominently.”
Yet, there were a few attempts within the predominant silence to make patriotic films. Sushil Mazumdar was one director to notice who made films on contemporary politics mixed with social issues viz. Mukti Snan (1937), Pratisodh (1941) and later after independence, Soldier’s Dream (1948), Sarbahara (1948) and Dukhir Iman (1954) to name some. Apart from these, Ardhendu Mukherjee made Sangram (1946), Sudhirbandhu Banerjee directed Bande Mataram (1946) while Satish Dasgupta brought on celluloid Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s ‘Pather Dabi’ with the same name in 1947, five months before 15 August.
Understandably it was just after the independence that several films were made that demonstrated the hardships of a captive nation. Films such as Bhuli Nai (1948, Hemen Gupta), Joy Jatra (1948, Niren Lahiri), Chattagram Astragar Lunthan (1949, Nirmal Chowdhury), Biplabi Kshudiram (1951, Hiranmoy Sen) and Biallish (1951, Hemen Gupta) revealed the latent anger that the filmmakers harboured and were wary of expressing earlier. Of these, Bhuli Nai was set against the 1905 partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon while Chattagram Astragar Lunthan was based on the failed raid of the colonial government’s Chittagong amoury in 1930 by a group of young Bengalis under the leadership of a schoolteacher Surya Sen, affectionately remembered as ‘Master Da’. Biplabi Kshudiram was based on one of Bengal’s most popular patriots, the teenage Kshudiram Bose, who was hanged in connection with the Muzaffarpur bombing of 30 April 1908.
Biallish, on the other hand, was set in 1942 and the garnering restlessness around the Quit India movement. Poignantly shot the film depicted how an Indian police officer representing the brutally autocratic British empire betrayed the nationalistic passion of fellow Indian freedom fighters. The film ends with India’s independence and an urge to identify the betrayers of the revolution. Bengal’s pioneer New Theatres studio apart from a series of socially aware films that were on the verge of being termed political made Pehla Aadmi in 1950 directed by Bimal Roy. Shot in Hindi for the pan India audience, the film depicts the heroic exploits of Bengal’s very own Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army.
It is to be remembered that the celebratory “freedom at midnight” might have bolstered filmmakers of Bombay and Madras but it meant less for those in Calcutta. There was a general belief that the independence is traded in lieu of partition, that the earlier nationalist idealism was somewhat been vitiated. Incidentally, and unfortunately some of these films faced the wrath of the censor board of an independent nation fearing mass agitation against a nascent government still trying to tread difficult waters. The tragedy of partition resurfaced in Nemai Ghosh’s Chhinnamul (1950) and later in the films of Ritwik Ghatak. Critically accepted much later, these films were generally not very successful commercially, probably because the audience’s wish was otherwise. The city of Calcutta was teeming with migrants, first from the villages during 1942-43 and then in thousands post-partition from East Bengal. They carried the wounds of separation and the tragedies of trying to be part of a new and somewhat ruthless milieu. The mass psyche wanted a fresh look at identity and so was born the rural-urban couple in Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. In parallel a host of comedy films started becoming popular, because the audience, after their daily grill and lamentation needed a good laugh.
As a race Bengalis can boast of being a vanguard of India’s freedom struggle right throughout. It is unfortunate that its cinema failed to respond to the need of the hour, more significantly and in numbers.
An edited version of the article was originally published in Yojana magazine, August 2022.
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